Tunnels, Colditz & Steve McQueen - Great Escapes At The IWM

By Dianne Cutlack | 12 November 2004
Shows a black and white photograph of Colditz Castle from a distance.

Colditz Castle. © Imperial War Museum.

Dianne Cutlack tunnelled her way into the Imperial War Museum for a look at their latest exhibition.

A stolen key pressed into a bar of soap. A tin can moulded into a small shovel. A gramophone record sleeve concealing a detailed map.

Humble, everyday objects that collectively reveal the ingenious resourcefulness of Allied servicemen taken prisoner in Germany during the Second World War.

The Great Escapes exhibition, on display at the Imperial War Museum until July 31, 2005, uses personal recollections, memorabilia, life-size replicas and hands-on displays to convey the experience of the thousands who became prisoners of war.

Shows a colour page from a magazine created by prisoners of war, called the Flywheel.

Page from Flywheel magazine produced by POW members of the Mühlberg Motor Club in Stalag IVB Germany, edited by Tom Swallow and Arthur H Pill. © Imperial War Museum.

It offers a unique insight into life behind barbed wire and marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most celebrated escape attempts of the war.

For Allied prisoners captured and interred in Germany, escape was an act of defiance that brought hope and excitement to the otherwise stultifying routine of life in a prison camp.

In the words of RAF prisoner Frank Tams, the captive had only "his wit, inventiveness, his brains, endurance and mental attitude, as well as pure cussedness". More importantly, the POW had "unlimited time to plot and scheme".

Interactive displays featured throughout the exhibit encourage visitors to share the POW experience. Children and adults alike can forge identity papers, be photographed in disguise, evade prison guards and crawl through an escape tunnel.

The exhibition focuses on escapes that took place from Colditz Castle and Stalag Luft III, one of the German Luftwaffe’s special camps for captured airmen.

Shows a black and white photograph of two gramaphone records, one of which has been ripped open to reveal some German currency.

German currency hidden in gramophone records sent to Colditz prisoners by MI9. Major P Reid Collection. © Imperial War Museum.

Surely the most audacious escape attempt was the two-man glider constructed in an attic room of Colditz Castle by two pilot officers, Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch.

Although the war ended before the glider could be launched from the castle’s roof, subsequent testing of a replica proved that the glider would indeed have flown. A full-size model of the Colditz Glider is one of the exhibition’s highlights.

Another life-size replica of a vaulting apparatus illustrates a daring escape from Stalag Luft III known as the Wooden Horse. RAF officer Eric Williams and two colleagues used a wooden vaulting horse to conceal the entrance of the tunnel they were digging.

The three not only managed to flee the camp, but also achieved the POW’s much-desired ‘home run’ – escape to a neutral country, and repatriation to Britain.

Shows a black and white photograph of an earth moving trolley in a tunnel.

Escape tunnel with home-made earth moving trolley at Stalag Lüft III. © Imperial War Museum.

Pride of place in the exhibit is given to the remarkable Great Escape. Stories and models reveal the arduous 15-month tunnelling operation, which allowed 76 RAF officers to escape from Stalag Luft III in March 1944.

The officers’ forged identity papers, travel documents and maps are displayed, along with replicas of the wooden trolleys used to move sand and men through the tunnels.

Only three of the 76 escapees managed to reach England. Of the remainder, all were recaptured and 50 officers shot. The exhibit includes documents from the National Archives recording their fate and the fate of German SS officers subsequently brought to trial for their deaths.

Alongside the escape attempts, the exhibition displays poignant reminders of prison camp life.

There are prisoners’ sketches and paintings, a log book kept by Flying Officer W. H. Pullen of the parcels he received from home and a letter written by Eric Williams to his mother, letting her know he had escaped to Stockholm and would be home, he hoped, "in about a week".

Shows a sketch of the wire and watchtower at a prisoner of war camp.

Sketch of Stalag Lüft III by Alex Cassie. © Imperial War Museum.

Recognising that the POW experience has long been a favourite of Hollywood and British film studios, the exhibit pays tribute to such popular films as The Colditz Story (1954) and The Great Escape (1963).

At the same time it seeks to separate fact from fiction. It explains how the daring motorcycle stunts used in The Great Escape were not based on an actual event, but added to the film at the suggestion of actor Steve McQueen. A copy of the Triumph TR6 Trophy motorcycle ridden by McQueen is on display.

At the end of the exhibit, a stand of trees signifies the ultimate goal of the prisoner: freedom.

Thought-provoking and deeply absorbing, the Great Escapes exhibition is a timely reminder of the indomitable resilience of the human spirit.

Dianne Cutlack is a freelance writer who can be contacted at jcutlack@compuserve.com.

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